I always feel guilty when I walk into a show with high hopes. But when that show is one of the most well-known musicals ever, boasting the longest run on West End despite the worst movie adaptation of all time (sorry Wolverine, we trusted you), there’s valid reason to expect big things.
And in the hands of the Townsville Choral Society, which has brought the production to life three times previously, there were even greater expectations that this show would live up to past local revivals.
Les Misérables has returned.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo and with a score by Boubil and Schonberg, Les Mis is a show many professional and budding thespians, musicians and production crews hope to someday cross off their wish list; and which more than 100 locals can do after last night, with the Choral Society calling on the talents of a gargantuan cast and crew.
What was immediately obvious from the moment the house lights dimmed was that this show was polished. Even if the production had no lyrics, you would have felt the conflict intensifying, plateauing, then coming to its peak through the instrumentation alone. Orchestral Director Rianta Belford leads an incredible team of what can only be described as Townsville’s best musicians: this musical is sung through, which means there is never a lull. There is no break for those in the pit until the end of each Act, but each song is played with as much vigour and urgency as its predecessor, invigorating the audience and making every person in the Civic Theatre feel just as much a part of the revolution unfolding in front of them as those on stage.
Alex Thomas donning the shackles of prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, is a remarkable talent with soaring vocal range. It is evident he has played the convict before, with Valjean’s plight acted out superbly and Alex tackling mishaps (and wig flaps) without missing a beat. So too Valjean’s foe Javert, played by Rob Onslow. An emotional narrative plays out on Rob’s face throughout the production as Javert fights his own battle between what he believes in and what is right, a battle mimicked in his songs, which Rob delivers with power.
Last night’s standing ovation began during the bows of a single person: Brooke Maxey as Eponine, her first lead role with the Choral Society. Eponine’s tale is perhaps the most heartbreaking in Les Mis – and judging by the open sobbing heard in the audience during A Little Fall of Rain, Townsville agrees. Brooke’s performance – especially in Eponine’s iconic On My Own – was a highlight of the production, and made Act Two all the more emotional.
Emotion. It’s what launched the Les Mis juggernaut, with the characters’ stories made all the more powerful through the feelings evoked in audiences. But last night, something wasn’t there. The vocals, acting and instrumentation were all incredibly strong, which leads me to believe something was lost when the show was reworked in 2014. Whether songs were cut that tightened the bonds with certain characters or something else entirely, there just wasn’t that same emotional connection formed between the audience and many of the other characters. I have no doubt it’s for reasons beyond the control of the cast, though – their blocking was all perfect, dances choreographed beautifully by Andrea Dighton, and the ensemble when given their chance became a chorus that could rival that of West End, under the close guidance of Vocal Director Claire Davies.
There were one or two other niggles which were clear went hand-in-hand with the recent Civic Theatre upgrades as crews become accustomed to new systems, but these seem to be ironing themselves out quickly. Being a sung-through musical where the score never stops there are always bound to be hiccups on opening night, when the swelling noise of an audience makes picking song entries more difficult, but these moments were barely noticeable surrounded by towering sets, intricately detailed costumes, and a stage full of people giving their all.
A surprising standout for me were the Thénardiers, played by Nick Christie and Jill Cason. Watching the West End production, I despised them. But last night, Jill and Nick gave the characters the injection of extra filthy comedy they needed – so no matter what was stolen or who they targeted, I still caught myself grinning like a Colgate poster boy every time they weaseled onto stage.
A number of regulars on Townsville stages also had their time to shine: Harshil Pillai as Marius and Sean Thomas as Enjolras lead a strong male ensemble of revolutionaries and impressed vocally; Jasmin Delle Baite’s sweetness and vulnerability was all too believable (I would have run across France to save your daughter too!); and soprano Sophie Ricca’s return to local theatre following her time at the Queensland Conservatorium was mesmerising.
The smaller ensembles, too, lifted the production: from Act One’s bevy of lovely ladies to Act Two’s group of students-turned-revolution leaders, you were left marvelling at how such a large number of individuals could all sound so good while being pushed up against a wall or thrown down a barricade. The talent really is endless – I admit I was still spotting new faces halfway through the bows.
My sincerest congratulations goes out to Director Sandra Neal: Les Mis is a monster of a production, but you have collated not only the most superb of casts, but an incredibly experienced production team who have gone above and beyond.
Would I see it again?
This is a question I also asked myself after first seeing it on West End. The answer then was a firm no: even as an audience member, you are invested in the story and walk out drained. It is a big night out too – but this is where I think the Townsville show will win out, with fewer musical numbers making the production more approachable for theatre newcomers. Yes, I would see this show again. For the fire ignited in me by the orchestra, the synchronicity of the dances, the adrenaline of the barricade scenes, and the uncensored emotion of Brooke Maxey. She was truly miserable.
Catch the Townsville Choral Society’s Les Misérables at the Civic Theatre until 1 September, with tickets available here.